The Education Department had a stroke of good luck today when it released data showing that federal stimulus money intended for low-performing schools is going where it should go — to high schools that some have coined “dropout factories” because they produce half of the nation’s dropouts each year.
The data is a useful preemptive strike against incoming House Republicans who are raising questions about how federal dollars are being spent. Republicans also are angling for less prescriptive ways of funding domestic programs in favor of block grants to states. Add to that sentiment an impending belt-tightening brought on by a ballooning debt and anxious fiscal conservatives at the helm, and it will serve all federal agencies well to tout successes where they can.
The timing was fitting for the Education Department’s crowing. The agency’s numbers emerged on the same day a new study was released showing that the number of dropout factory high schools declined by 13 percent between 2007 and 2008 because of aggressive turnaround efforts on the part of their school boards and superintendents.
The Education Department has devoted $4 billion to a grant program designed specifically for the most assertive turnaround programs at the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Last year, the agency restructured the grants and radically altered its eligibility standards so that high schools could more easily make use of the money.
It worked. Now, almost half of the 730 schools engaged in turnaround activities are receiving federal money to do so. Previously, almost none of the “dropout factory” schools had access to those funds.
“In the past, low-performing high schools have been almost totally ignored in most districts’ school turnaround efforts,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Now, with a tug of the puppet string at the federal level, school boards have a reason to turn their attention to the remaining low-performing high schools.
The report on dropout factories — from education policy groups America’s Promise Alliance and Civic Enterprises, and Johns Hopkins University — is explicit in its main argument that incremental progress on high school graduation rates isn’t acceptable.
“The rate of progress over the last decade — 3 percentage points — is too slow to reach the national goal of having 90 percent of students graduate from high school and obtain at least one year of postsecondary schooling or training by 2020,” the report said. “Over the next 10 years, the nation will need to accelerate its progress in boosting high school graduation rates fivefold from the rates achieved through 2008.”
As luck would have it, that’s a talking point tailor-made for Duncan, who has exhibited little patience for anyone who slow-walks changes in school policies. (As head of Chicago’s public schools, he very nearly sued the Education Department over the right to offer after-school tutoring.) In his current job, Duncan can now show reluctant Republicans — some of whom want to eliminate his agency — why the department’s leadership might matter after all.